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Reform Group Plans to Publish New Women’s Torah Commentary

May 15, 2002
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Amid a growing interest in Jewish women’s studies, a Reform group is commissioning what will be the most comprehensive women’s Torah commentary ever.

Announced days before Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, the book will be written entirely by women and is expected to take about five years to complete.

Edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, a professor of Bible at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, the Women of Reform Judaism-sponsored commentary will consist of contributions from a range of Jewish women scholars.

“We want to bring the women of the Torah from the shadows into the limelight, from their silences into speech, from the margins to which they have often been relegated to the center of the page,” Eskenazi said in a recent speech describing the project.

A number of books have been published in the past decade addressing women in the Bible and offering women’s perspectives on the Bible.

However, the new book will be the first “classical” women’s commentary, according to Eskenazi, meaning that it will cover individual Torah portions in their entirety.

Each portion will involve a number of different writers and will contain an overview, followed by the biblical text in Hebrew and English, a central commentary and additional voices.

Although under Reform auspices, the project will solicit submissions from women of all streams of Judaism. Organizers say that while all the authors will be women and much of the focus will be on gender issues in the Bible, the book is intended to be used by men as well.

It is not intended to replace the Reform movement’s Torah commentary, edited by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, but to serve as a supplement.

“Just like Adam really needed a companion in order to make his life complete, so Eve was created, we feel that to make the Torah speak to today’s men and women you need a companion to Plaut’s commentary,” said Ellen Rosenberg, executive director of Women of Reform Judaism.

If the experience of previous women’s Torah commentaries is any indicator, the book should sell well.

“The Women’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions,” edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, is one of the top sellers of the Vermont-based Jewish Lights Publishing.

Stuart Matlins, the company’s publisher, declined to offer specific sales numbers. But he said Goldstein’s book, which came out two years ago, is “extremely popular, and not just among women.”

Responding to a growing interest in Jewish women’s issues, Jewish Lights recently created a separate category in its catalog specifically for women’s interest books.

“The more women’s commentaries, the better,” said Goldstein, who is director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto and is working on a book with women’s perspectives on the Haftarah.

Such books, Goldstein said, are particularly important for Bat Mitzvah girls, who “need a lot of role modeling.”

They also offer new perspectives on women’s issues in the Bible, such as the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, she said.

“Believe me, Rashi was not sensitive when he commented on the rape of Dinah and blamed her,” Goldstein said, referring to the medieval French commentator. “But he was a man writing in the Middle Ages. I would have liked to hear what his daughters would have said.”

Are there enough women’s issues in the Torah to merit a whole women’s commentary?

Goldstein, Eskenazi and other women involved with these projects answer with a resounding yes.

Goldstein said she has read feminist interpretations even on issues not ostensibly about gender, such as discussions of the gender implications of kashrut and the death of Aaron’s sons.

Lori Lefkovitz, academic director of Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in suburban Philadelphia, said she welcomed the new commentary, as well as other recent women’s works on the Bible.

“What these new commentaries have shown us is that what women bring to the text is a different sensibility, a different set of experiences and different questions, even if they are not writing as women per se,” Lefkovitz said.

“They twist the lens of the material so that we notice different things, we see other emphases, we recover lost traditions and we hear voices that have been quieter.”

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